Editorials

Time to rethink the nation's post-3/11 energy policy

The disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant seven years ago — in which three of its six reactors suffered core meltdowns after a giant tsunami crippled its emergency power supply and cooling system — swept away the safety myth of nuclear energy in this country. Nearly 50,000 people of Fukushima Prefecture are still displaced from their homes today and the return of residents to areas around the plant remains slow even after evacuation advisories were lifted following decontamination efforts. These facts testify to the lasting damage that a severe nuclear power plant accident can have on people’s lives.

A vast majority of citizens remain wary of the safety of nuclear power — just as they were right after the disaster. According to a recent media opinion survey, more than 80 percent of respondents said they remain concerned with the risk of severe accident at a nuclear power plant. More than 60 percent called for phasing out nuclear energy in the future, while another 11 percent demanded the immediate scrapping of all nuclear power plants.

The government’s current energy policy, including the use of nuclear energy, doesn’t appear to reflect popular sentiment and the changing reality surrounding nuclear power. The Abe administration and the power industry have pushed for the reactivation of nuclear reactors idled in the wake of the Fukushima accident once they have cleared screening by the Nuclear Regulation Authority under safety regulations that were revamped to become what the administration has touted as the world’s most stringent levels.

The restart of the reactors, however, has remained slow. Since the new regulations were introduced in 2013, only six reactors at four plants run by Kyushu, Kansai and Shikoku Electric Power have been reactivated following the NRA’s nod and the consent of host local governments. The operation of one of them — Reactor No. 3 at Shikoku Electric’s Ikata plant in Ehime Prefecture — was ordered suspended in a court injunction issued in December in response to one of dozens of lawsuits filed across Japan seeking a halt to nuclear power plant operations. The share of nuclear power in the nation’s electricity supply remained a mere 2 percent as of 2016 — compared with around 30 percent before the 2011 disaster. The feasibility of the government’s energy mix target of nuclear energy accounting for 20-22 percent of the power supply in 2030 is in question.

The government’s pledge in its 2014 basic energy plan to reduce the nation’s dependency on nuclear energy as much as possible may have been a response to widespread popular sentiment against nuclear power. But in the seven years since 3/11, nuclear power has become less competitive vis as vis other power sources in many countries around the world due to rising construction costs and more stringent safety requirements. The economic advantages of nuclear power plants in Japan have also been challenged, particularly in view of the massive cost of dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima plant accident. The government has extended various support measures to power companies that run nuclear reactors as they face an increasingly competitive environment with the liberalization of the electricity business.

The past seven years have also witnessed a significant decline in the cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which have rapidly gained market share in power production around the world. Japan has lagged sharply behind this global trend, however. Foreign Minister Taro Kono, speaking at a gathering of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi in January, called Japan’s energy policy “lamentable” in that it is aiming for a 22-24 percent share of renewables in the electricity supply by 2030 even though such energy sources account for 24 percent of global power supply on average today.

The government’s energy plan calls for maximum efforts to expand the use of renewable energy to reduce dependency on nuclear power. Following the introduction in 2012 of the feed-in tariff system, the share of renewables has indeed increased to account for around 15 percent of electricity generation. At the same time, some government policies raise questions about its commitment to boosting the use of renewable energy, such as its decision to allow major power companies the right to restrict the supply of solar and wind-generated electricity to their power transmission networks.

The world’s energy landscape has significantly changed since the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Seven years on, the government should revisit the lessons of the Tepco plant accident and reconsider whether it should continue to promote nuclear power despite the increased social and economic costs, or make a clear turn toward the greater use of renewable energy.

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